Spike Lee's 'She's Gotta Have It' Turns 25

Grown and sexy: The director's daring film changed the game in Hollywood -- and assumptions about black women's sexuality.

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Tracy Camilla Johns and Spike Lee in She's Gotta Have It

On the hot night of Aug. 8, 1986, a line of young black people wrapped around the corner of New York City's Cinema Studio 1, eager to catch Spike Lee's much-buzzed-about debut feature film, She's Gotta Have It. Eighty-five hot and sexy minutes later, they weren't disappointed with Lee's cinematic achievement.

The following day, the New York Times review said that the movie "has a touch of the classic." And the Washington Post praised its "rare quality: a sense of place."

She's Gotta Have It is now cinema and book history, but back then, a 29-year-old Lee, wunderkind director and NYU film-school graduate, turned the Hollywood establishment upside down by setting the film in black Brooklyn, shooting it in 12 days on a starting budget of $20,000 (the final budget was $175,000), securing a distribution deal with Island Pictures, winning the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes and grossing more than $7 million that year.

The provocative heroine of his film, Nola Darling, and its taboo subject matter, a black woman's sexual independence, marked a radical departure from anything ever seen on the American screen before. In the words of cultural critic and director Nelson George, who was one of the film's early financiers, on Aug. 8, 1986, "the first successful black cult film" was born.

A Revolution in Black Film

Twenty-five years later, it's clear that She's Gotta Have It was a hit for so many reasons. The plot, featuring a young woman, Nola (Tracy Camilla Johns), and the three lovers who courted her -- the romantic poet, Jamie Overstreet (Tommy Redmond Hicks); the narcissistic model, Greer Childs (John Canada Terrell); and the now-iconic hip-hop bike messenger, Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) -- might have been anticipated by the prose of Zora Neale Hurston's 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. The sexual context and contests of Lee's movie, however, were unchartered waters in black cinema.

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"She's Gotta Have It changed the playing field," says Donald Bogle, film historian and author of Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters. "Spike Lee made the black filmmaker a viable force in mainstream cinema. There had been black directors who had gotten attention before, but with Spike, there was something totally different. It was so contemporary and had such an interesting edge to it."

That edginess was inconceivable a decade before. She's Gotta Have It was celebrated for its technical tricks. A mini mashup of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, Lee's film boasts of multiple points of view; characters who speak directly to the audience; an unconventional nonlinear narrative; jump cuts; photo montages of black urban life; and Ernest Dickerson's black-and-white cinematography, which both supported and subverted the film's documentary feel.

She's Gotta Have It was also novel offscreen. Embracing Melvin Van Peebles' 1970s guerrilla-filmmaking techniques in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and Oscar Micheaux's black Hollywood entrepreneurialism from the 1920s, Lee turned She's Gotta Have It, and by extension himself, into a name brand. With one film, Lee became both auteur and entrepreneur.

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